Wednesday, April 13, 2005

What Makes it Real

So during my senior year of high school, I broke out of prison. I had felt jailed for such a long time, stuck inside my head and my skirt and my ¾-length shirt, always wondering why, always feeling like everything I was doing was pointless.

Cuz it was for someone else. I’m not sure who, but it wasn’t me.

You could say my Jewish education is pretty good. Decent school, nice teachers, Zionist-feminist Modern Orthodoxy, the whole trip. But senior year I was taking a hashkafa course, and the rabbi who was teaching it was kind of making me hate Judaism.

My parents are baalei tshuvah. They made the choice that would decide my lifestyle, my beliefs, my identity. But I don’t mind. I actually love it. I love my Jewish community, Jewish studies, Israel, I love my shul. Seriously. See my parents always stress that the main thing is to be a mensch, no matter how many laws you keep. I know they respect me no matter what I do, so I’ve never felt forced, especially not about Judaism. Yeah, I have a lot of friends who can’t stand it. They’re on their way out now and will be long gone by graduation. Shabbat, kashrut, everybody judging you all the time, they can’t stand the rules and the hypocrisy they see, so they figure it’s all worthless and they leave. At first I was really sad about it, but after senior year, I couldn't really blame them.

So we’re sitting in hashkafa class, and this rabbi is talking about the Rambam. Only, just the Rambam. Like the Rambam is the only true path possible to Judaism. So that means that if you’re not an intellectual, or if you can’t fit God into a box inside your mind, you’re letting your emotions take control and not really believing in God. He actually said this, in so many words. But there’s more. He told us that hashgacha pratit only exists for, like, two tzadikkim in the world, and everyone else just isn’t on that level. So what does this say about God? Is God ignoring the suffering of those who aren’t smart or reasonable enough to believe in God adequately? If God’s all-powerful, then why should hashgachah be exclusive? Okay fine, I could disagree with the rabbi, but then he kept coming back with the endless refrain, “if you don’t agree with my rational interpretation, it’s because you have emotional problems.” I’m serious. He threw out all of Chassidut without even blinking. And this really didn’t seem to bother anybody else in my class.

I guess the last straw was the final exam, where we had to answer this question:

True or False: God loves us.

And the answer was false. Because if God loved us, God would have physical emotions, and God isn’t physical, and emotions are simply results of our limited, physical selves that can’t discern reality for the objective, rational system that it is.

I got it right, but only because I had stopped caring. Or believing in much of anything.

That night, I was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling of my pitch-black room. I usually addressed the dark abyss above my head, thanking it for things, asking it for things, saying it was one, and its’ name one. That night it was nothing.

As I began to doze off, something happened. I can’t really explain it, but suddenly I felt like I was standing outside of myself. Outside of my identity, my name, my life. It was like I was watching my life on a movie, not realizing it’s mine, that I’m the title character here. The real me was blackness. Emptiness. Nothingness…but so dense, so true, so filled with light. And then I was catapulted back into this life.

No, I wasn’t dying. And it wasn’t so dramatic. I just realized, in that moment, that there is so much more to life than the limitations of my mind, and my body. I have a soul, I am a soul. An immortal soul. So then it’s like there are no rules, cuz I can never really die. I am within God, a part of God even, and this world is my playground to create goodness and love. And it’s all of ours, cuz we’re all immortal. I realized that night that in the world I was living, God wasn’t really real to most people. Yeah, we davened and learned Torah and did mitzvot, and it was all beautiful, but God wasn’t a living reality. So our Judaism was about fear, or about rationality, but not about God.

That’s why I stuck with it, even after that moment faded away, even when I began to doubt again, cuz I knew the truth. God isn’t real to so many of us, and so where is the love in our community? Why does it all boil down to skirts and hats? Why is there so much lashon hora? In my high school, Judaism boiled down to God giving the Torah to Moshe, who gave it to the Zkeinim, who gave it to the Rambam, and then Rav Soloveitchik, end of story.

But I knew there was more to it than that. I know that Judaism has a deep, powerful, immortal soul too, containing all of us as we realize our incredible potential to create in this world, to daven to God outside of ourselves even as we find God within ourselves. To live, as Jews.

So yeah, here I am, still in this Orthodox community with its issues and problems and everything. So why do I stay, when I could be in a Buddhist ashram or New Age center somewhere? Cuz I’m Jewish, and God is real to me. And since I believe that a seeker like me can exist, then I’ve gotta be her.

But nobody ever told me to, and that’s what makes it real.